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The Neo-Optimist

I am a born again optimist…a neo-optimist if you will.  I am confident for the first time in months, that there will indeed be an NHL season AND a corresponding CBA in place in a matter of days.  Okay so you might think I cracked under the weight of the prospect that the season will finally be cancelled next week, and that there is no basis whatsoever for my optimism.  Perhaps you’re right, but after some careful consideration I think I might be on to something and I would like to share my reason why here in this column.

First off left me state categorically, that no, I do not have any insider information and am simply basing this opinion on my own reasoning conducted early Saturday morning.

The beginning of the process begins with the public acknowledgement by NHL Commissioner Garry Bettman that the season would probably not be viable if a draft of a proposed CBA was not being worked on this weekend.  In other words he was finally announcing the much anticipated “drop dead date”. It should be noted that both at the time, and during follow up questioning was he willing to commit to an actual date so there appears to be at least some wiggle room left…but the important thing for me was that he was talking about the cancellation of the season in terms of an impending  reality rather than something to be considered at some later date.  Bill Daly later confirmed the position by stating that it was just a matter of when, not if…though I’ll get into this type of comment later.

The other important step this past week, was the softening of the league’s stance on the linkage issue (the tie between revenues and payrolls set arbitrarily at 53-55%).  Linkage had long been a key issue with the NHLPA and was compounded by the probability of reduced revenues following the lockout that could have seen the NHL’s proposed salary cap range drop by as much as 20-30% in it’s first year of implementation.  The comment by Bill Daly on Saturday offered the opening on which the NHLPA can offer an updated proposal and a point from which they can finally negotiate.

Having taken into account these two important developments, I then went back and tried to understand (or perhaps rationalize) the process up to this point to see whether I could support my sudden optimism.

The first important point to consider is that the two main protagonists both come from a labor relations background.  Gary Bettman studied labor relations at Cornell and went on to work in the NBA under David Stern before moving over to the NHL.  He was involved in the 1994-95 CBA process, as well as the negotiations between the league and the officials in the late 90s.  His opponent in these negotiations also has a string of credits to his name.  As with Bettman, Goodenow is a graduate from an Ivy League School and has a background in law and labor relations.  Goodenow’s experience extends beyond that of the sporting world into other businesses, but he is equally if not more qualified for his position.  Both men know how to work the media, time announcements and engineer leaks to their advantage in the great negotiating game.

Also to be taken into consideration, is the art of negotiation in and of itself.  You can in some ways draw an analogy with playing poker and the art of bluffing.  During the process you are trying to undermine the oppositions commitment to their position as well as feeling out the possible viability of your own position.  Granted in these labor negotiations there are many aspects and points on which you can compromise, but the basic comparison I think is valid.  The purpose of the proposals to date, as well as the comments both official and unofficial have been largely directed to the opposing constituencies and to a lesser extent the general public.  The goal is to create doubt amongst the league owners and players respectively, as well as to bring public pressure to bear on those same individuals.

This process would liable to continue forever, or until one side caves if there wasn’t something at stake.  The point of all this is of course the division of a large pool of money and both sides recognize that alternatives to getting a CBA deal done are far from satisfying…at least in financial terms.

While an impasse might sound like a great idea for the owners, the realities of implementing one and then attempting to run a league with replacement players is not a particularly practical or cheap option.  Arenas have overheads and there needs to be a good deal of money coming in to make it worthwhile, not to mention attract sponsorship and advertising.  The prospect of watching career AHLers and other from various pro and semi-pro leagues, combined with the lesser lights willing to cross the line is hardly a model for success.  While it might provide a degree of pressure on the union, it might take even longer for the league to get their impasse improved by the appropriate authorities both in the US and the provinces of Canada, not to mention the potential problems associated with using foreign nationals as replacements.  On the player’s side, there is realistically little money to be made in Europe, where the average salary is around $150,000 a year and million dollar contracts are only available to a handful of players in a league where attendance is on par with the AHL.

By my reasoning, the cancellation of the season is the most important leveraging point of all for both sides.

Given this view of the process to date, it leads me to no other conclusion than that there is a high likelihood of a deal being done in the next few days, with an announcement maybe as soon as Tuesday.  It may very well be that we see one side or the other cave, or we could see a true compromise but whatever the outcome we will have a season.

Now feel free to return to reality and your own point of view…

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